MOSCOW — Russia's Federal Security Service has promised up to 300 million rubles ($10.3 million) for accurate information that could help "neutralize" Chechen rebel leaders Shamil Basayev and Aslan Maskhadov, and a military official reasserted Russia's right to strike terrorists the world over.
"As for carrying out preventive strikes against terrorist bases, we will take all measures to liquidate terrorist bases in any region of the world," Col.-Gen. Yuri Baluyevsky, chief of the Russian General Staff, told reporters.
News of the reward broke as state television was broadcasting footage of Prosecutor-General Vladimir Ustinov briefing President Vladimir Putin on the investigation into the taking of more than 1,200 hostages in a school in southern Russia last week. It was the first official admission that the number of hostages had been so high; initially the government said about 350 people had been seized, and over the weekend a regional official said the number had been 1,181.
Ustinov said 326 hostages had been killed and 727 wounded in the attack, which ended Friday in a wave of explosions and gunfire as hostages tried to flee, and special forces and armed civilians tried to aid them. He said 210 bodies had been identified, and forensic workers were also trying to identify 32 body fragments. The death toll could rise, Ustinov said.
Outrage in Beslan
Hundreds of people took to the streets of in Beslan in North Ossetia on Wednesday to vent anger at President Putin and demand the resignation of regional leader Alexander Dzasokhov over the hostage bloodbath.
“Putin and his people here ... they sold us to the terrorists,” said Izeta Khugayeva, her eyes wild with the pain of losing her sister and niece in the hostage crisis.
Like other Beslan residents who left teddy bears and flowers at the gutted school as a tribute to the 326 people who were killed — half of them children — Khugayeva openly expressed hatred for North Ossetian President Dzasokhov.
“If he comes near me I will kill him,” Khugayeva screamed.
“Dzasokhov answers to Moscow, to the world, but for his republic he could not do anything. He should have been killed. My loved ones died, why should he live?” she said, dressed in a black headscarf as a mark of mourning.
Rally against terrorism
The protest came in the wake of a mass protest against terrorism held outside the Kremlin on Tuesday. Demonstrators at the rally, which authorities said drew about 130,000 people, bore banners with slogans such as "We won't give Russia to terrorists" and "The enemy will be crushed; victory will be ours."
The demonstration, organized by a pro-government trade union, was heavily advertised on state-controlled television for two days, with prominent actors appealing to citizens to turn out. Banners bore the white, blue and red of Russia's flag, and speakers echoed Putin's statements that terrorists must be destroyed.
Gorbachev calls for probe
Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev on Wednesday called for a “clear and careful analysis” of last week’s hostage drama and argued that parliament should be involved in the investigation.
Putin has ordered an internal investigation into the attack but argued that a parliamentary probe could turn into a “political show.”
“The public expects a clear and careful analysis of this situation,” Gorbachev told reporters in Hamburg, Germany, where he was attending a conference. He added that it would be appropriate “if this happens with the participation of parliament and the public.”
Gorbachev, speaking through an interpreter, argued that the effort to free the hostages “went as badly as it could have done.”
While Gorbachev advocated a public investigation of the hostage drama, the former Soviet leader rejected suggestions that Russia needed outside involvement to help end the conflict in Chechnya.
“Russia is capable of solving the problem there itself,” he said.
Annan urges restraint
Meanwhile, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan called on Russia to respect the rule of law while fighting Chechen rebels, after Moscow said Wednesday it would attack terrorist bases anywhere in the world.
“We need to come up with ways and means of fighting terrorism effectively, but we also need to make sure that these approaches do not undermine the rule of law and basic civil rights,” Annan told journalists on a visit to Mexico.
Annan was speaking in response to a question about a threat by Russia’s top general to attack terrorists anywhere in the world.
“As for launching pre-emptive strikes on terrorist bases, we will carry out all measures to liquidate terrorist bases in any region of the world,” said Baluevsky, the general staff chief.
Annan, attending a conference in Mexico, said nations needed to cooperate rather than act unilaterally against terrorism.
“I have made it quite clear that I believe, in the fight against terrorism, countries have to work together, pool their efforts, share information,” he said.
In 2002, Putin accused neighboring Georgia of harboring Chechen rebel bases and said this gave Moscow the right to strike at suspects beyond Russia’s borders.
U.S. walks a line on Chechen conflict
Moscow lashed at Washington on Wednesday for its willingness to hold talks with Chechens agitating for independence and suggested the issue could harm bilateral relations.
The State Department has condemned last week’s attack on the school but said Russia ultimately must hold political talks with rebellious Chechen leaders who are determined to break away from the Russian Federation.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Yakovenko also lashed out at the United States, saying talks with Chechens linked to rebel leaders are “absolutely unacceptable.”
“After all, we are talking about those individuals who stand behind bloody attacks by terrorists in Russia, which have drawn the indignation of the entire civilized word,” Yakovenko said in a statement.
Boucher said U.S. officials had met with Chechens with a variety of views in the past and would not rule out such meetings in the future, although “we do not meet with terrorists.”
“Our view on the overall situation has not changed,” Boucher said, adding ultimately “there must be a political settlement” over Chechnya.
Last month, the United States granted asylum to rebel leader and former Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov’s foreign minister, Ilyas Akhmadov. Interfax quoted Lavrov as saying that Akhmadov’s involvement in terrorist activities was “well known” to the Americans.
Terrorism drew Russia closer to the United States and other Western nations following the Sept. 11 attacks, when Putin expressed support for U.S. anti-terror efforts.
But since the attack in Beslan, Putin and other officials have turned up the volume on their accusations that Western nations apply double standards and hinder Russia’s fight against terrorism by questioning its policy in Chechnya.
Schools throughout the European Union should observe a minute’s silence on Sept. 14 in memory of schoolchildren killed in the siege last week, the European Parliament’s president proposed on Wednesday.
In a letter to the 25 EU leaders, Josep Borrell called for a symbolic Europewide gesture.
“This would be a potent symbol of Europe standing with those people, and particularly children, who fall victim to terrorism, and of our unwavering resolve to fight this scourge together,” Borrell said in the letter.
The European parliament will observe a minute’s silence at noon (1000 GMT) next Tuesday. Borrell suggested all schools in the EU mark a minute’s silence at the same time.
Militants seized the Beslan school on Sept. 1, a day after a suicide bombing in Moscow killed 10 people and just over a week after two Russian passenger planes crashed following explosions and killed all 90 people aboard — two attacks authorities suspect were linked to the war in Chechnya.
On Tuesday night, Russians got a horrific glimpse of conditions inside the school when a television station broadcast chilling images of the heavily armed, hooded assailants amid the crowd of women, children and men.
The NTV station said the pictures — which showed hundreds of people crowded into the gym beneath a string of explosives dangling from a basketball hoop — were recorded by the assailants.
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